To the uninitiated a naked dragster may look like a farm gate with a big motor on it
People who love dragsters tend to be on one side of the engine or the other. Either you love front-engine diggers or you hate ’em. The desire to strap oneself tightly behind a motor which, given the forces it is subjected to, will in all probability expire with potentially catastrophic consequences seems somewhat alien to those who believe the driver should be in front of such a calamity. Racing anything that doesn’t have the engine out front where God intended it to be is almost blasphemous to the other type of disciple.
When it comes down to where the motor should be in a digger, Rodney Benjes claims he doesn’t really have a preference: “I just went with what I knew.” After learning how to mess up a perfectly good four-door LJ Torana, he progressed to an 11-second, nitrous-sucking T-bucket, and another 12-second Torana, before taking some time out to crew on Vinnie Borowictz’s Wild Bunch Holdens. “It was a great experience and learning opportunity,” Rodney says. “It was the beginning of blown doorslammer racing in NZ. After that I eventually returned to racing with a front-engined dragster (FED) I built at home in my garage.” Using a mild supercharged big block Chevy running on alcohol, Rodders and crew soon had the rail running in the low eights at over 160mph. They were having a ton of fun, but, “the addiction, the need for speed, kept pushing my goals up and eventually we decided that for where we wanted to go, we needed a new car. My homebuilt masterpiece had reached its maximum for its design. Although my passion is the pure performance of drag racing rather than the nostalgia aspect, I enjoyed racing my FED and chose to stick with that style of car.”
To the uninitiated, a naked dragster may look like a farm gate with a big motor on it, but there’s a lot more chassis science involved than that. Graeme Berry was commissioned early in 2000 to build the new chassis, and lightweight chromoly was the material of choice. The wheelbase is 198 inches but looks longer. Both the front end and the diff are solidly mounted to the chassis; the flex of the long frame and the big Goodyears provide the only form of suspension. Traditionally, a FED uses a bell crank arrangement for steering, but Rod opted for a slightly slower-reacting rack and pinion unit, like a rear-engined car would use.
Rod’s legs straddle a nine-inch diff housing, equipped with an aftermarket nodular iron head, Romac floating hubs, 35-spline axles and spool. Wheel choice was Weld Racing offerings all round.
Roll cage design is pretty much mandated by the rulebook to give 360-degree protection. ¨Originally the car was constructed in the traditional style, with the seat at roughly the same level as the bottom of the diff. Once the car was together, Rod found his forward vision was obscured. “I couldn’t see anything but the back of the blower, it made for some¦ interesting rides in my first season. People think these cars are easy to drive, but the car would start drifting left or right and I wouldn’t realise until it was too late, and by then it’d be all over. Worst one was at Masterton, when I took out the finish line cones, buckling a wing and a front wheel. We took the car back to Kiwi Race Cars, raised the seat and roll cage 150mm ” that made a huge difference .”
It’s a ¨Windsuckin’ Chevy
Rod is quite proud of the fact that the motivation of his rail is all basic Chevrolet. No aftermarket block or heads are used here, although that’s more down to finances than ideology. “Sure, the block is grout-filled and has Milodon steel caps on it, and the heads have been ported, but this stuff was designed and built by Chevrolet for passenger cars some 30-odd years ago, and we are pulling about 1800hp out of it! I’m not trying to prove a point with this stuff; it’s just what I have. It won’t last forever and I don’t want to push it, so will be moving to an aftermarket block when the budget allows,” he says, with a grin.
The team has had some crank and bearing issues, but at present the reciprocating assembly consists of a four-inch stroke Eagle crank, and Venolia rods and pistons with a relatively low eight-to-one compression ratio. The big port Chevy heads have stainless valves, triple springs and roller rockers, while a custom ground Crow roller cam gives the valve train its orders via Crower lifters and beefy 7/16-inch push rods.
This motor is almost street car material, but the parts that ensure the Chevy engine makes big power reside up top. “While looking around at all the things I couldn’t afford, I came across a full billet 14:71 hi-helix retro blower built by SCS. It was fresh and the price was good, so I had to have it. I built an adaptor plate to cater for the additional set-back in the retro style, and made a few mods to the fuel system based on advice from [fellow dragster racers] Bert and CJ.”
There’s a bird catcher hat with a 110 pump, it has been plumbed up, but the high speed lean-out has never been used. The ignition system is all MSD gear, and once it’s done its job, all the burnt stuff is exhausted from a set of zoomies. Well of course there are zoomies. Would a blown FED look right with anything else? A Crowerglide centrifugal unit is used to launch the digger. Similar to what you might find on a motor scooter, the Crower unit is a highly refined and infinitely adjustable piece of equipment that is strongly favoured in nitro-burning applications. Behind it is an ever reliable air-shifted three-speed Lenco transmission. All this gear is required to get the car off the line quickly and cleanly, but when looking at a blown FED, none of that stuff matters; what hits you right between the eyes is the engine.
With all the new components in place for the ’07/’08 season, the team started pushing the combination. As Rod tells it: “With some tuning changes in place at the November Central Nationals, we went out and clocked a PB of 7.3 at mid-190mph; previous was 7.7 at 182mph. We were still killing rear bearings though, so had to change them between rounds. The second pass was rather tragic, pulling a wheel stand and coming down really hard, slamming into the ground, buckling both front wheels and bending the forward section of the chassis. The car hit so hard it jarred my body, pushing my foot back on the go pedal and pulling the wheels up a second time! The saddest part of the story, though, is I had the wheelie bars sitting in the trailer. I hadn’t needed them on the car for years and didn’t realise what an impact the new blower would have. Lesson learned.
“With the NZ Nats coming up in February for the first time ever at my home track, I was determined to get the car fixed. I owe a great deal of thanks to Colin Welch at Kiwi Race Cars, who worked through the Christmas break to cut out and replace about six feet [1.8 metres] of the chassis, inserting new top and bottom rails to get it straight again, as well as straightening the front wheels. While all that was happening, we found that the rear journal of the crank was cracked, and likely the cause of the destroyed bearings.”
“With a new crank and support from Collier Motor Engineers we got it all machined and balanced quickly,” Rod says. “At the same time, Independent Liquor came on board to support us, an excellent opportunity for a new paint job. With a lot of hard work and late nights, we were able to get it all back together with a day to spare. With the new look Woodstock paint job and crew, wheelie bars on, off the trailer we clocked a surprising 7.06 at 195mph, a personal best. We checked the filter and all looked good, but to be safe we dropped the sump and checked the bearings ” perfect. Finally this problem was sorted. It dawned on me that maybe we were able to run a six with this combo -very cool. I didn’t even consider a 200mph pass at that stage.
“On day two I came up against Mark Vincent for the semifinal. We had made some more tuning changes, focused on getting all the cylinders running evenly, so all I wanted to do was get down the track with a full hard pass. I did just that, watching Mark fly by me at 3/4 track, it felt like a good run. Coming back into the pits, Rhys Harrison stopped us and handed me a beer, congratulating me on a 200mph pass! It didn’t really sink in at that stage. As we approached the pits, a crowd of racers and supporters gathered round, and I still had no idea what I had done, but I knew it must have been good. Then my crew told me: I had just run a 6.87 at 202.88mph. My first six and 200mph all in one. The best race I ever lost! I was buzzing for weeks.
“From there, with more track time and opportunity for tuning, it just kept getting better. At the Nostalgia drags in April we clocked a 6.74 at 200mph, followed by a 6.67 at 200mph; PB after PB. We’re still tuning the car, so we hope to find a little more without breaking it. We’ll make a few other changes to let me cautiously step up the boot to see how much further we can take it.”
Rod is cautious for a reason. Through the years the car has had its fair share of trauma. The list of casualties includes buckled front wheels (twice), a destroyed front wing, bent rear wing, buckled rear wheel, four cracked crankshafts, a popped blower manifold (twice), blown burst panels, a cracked intake manifold, a broken blower belt, a disintegrated clutch, a destroyed bell housing, twisted blower rotors three times, four boost and two oil pressure gauges killed, a broken ignition box, and a bent chassis.
And on top of all that you can bet there’s a bit of blood, lots of sweat and a few pairs of undies.
Rod Benjes Owner Profile
Occupation: Manager of IT Services, BNZ
Previously owned cars: 1973 four-door LJ Torana, 350 Chev T-bucket, LH Torana, 1965 Chevrolet Caprice
Dream car: This is it
Length of ownership: Seven years
Rod thanks: “Firstly my wife Lisa, whose support has been invaluable. Current crew: Darren Curtis, John Dillion, Lawrence Pritchard and Stephen Philpott, without whom race day just wouldn’t happen. Two other crew members in the early days that really helped get things going were Zain Hardcastle and Alan ‘Water Boy’ McCarthy. Vickie ” Independent Liquor, Alan ” AMC Electrical, Bert ” Powder Surfaces, Colin ” Kiwi Race Cars, Stephen and Vicky ” Fusion Art, Denny ” Colours on Glass”
2001 FED (Front Engine Dragster) Specifications
Engine: Supercharged 468ci (7669cc) Chev, 454 cast iron Chevy four-bolt block with Milodon steel caps, Eagle crank, RCD crank support, Venolia aluminium rods and pistons (60 thou over), approx 8:1 compression, Melling high-performance oil pump and custom sump carrying 10 litres of Redline oil, rectangular port cast Chevy cylinder heads, stainless steel valves, triple valve springs, titanium retainers, Harland Sharp roller rockers, Crane stud girdle, Crow cam, Crower roller lifters, 7/16 pushrods, 14:71 SCS high-helix retro supercharger over-driven 22 per cent, 32psi boost at 8400rpm, Enderle Birdcatcher, 110 pump, 10 hat and eight port injectors, MSD crank trigger, MSD AL7-2 electronic ignition box, low profile billet distributor, 8mm leads and NGK plugs, zoomies, DL10 data logger
Driveline: Air-shifted three-speed Lenco transmission, directly coupled to the rear end, two-disc Crowerglide centrifugal clutch, Ford nine-inch housing, nodular diff head, Mark Williams pinion support and Romac spool, full floating hubs, and 35-spline axles, 4.30:1 diff ratio
Brakes: Primary braking via twin 250mph Deist chutes. Rear brakes only — Wilwood four-pot callipers over drilled steel rotors. Brake is controlled by hand lever
Wheels/ tyres: 17×2.5-inch spindle mount and 15×15-inch Weld Alumastar wheels, Goodyear front runners, Goodyear 33.5x14x15 slicks
Exterior: Alloy panel body with front and rear (canard) wings
Interior: Custom alloy seat with five-point Simpson harness, butterfly steering wheel, air shift buttons; rpm, oil and boost gauges, shift light, oil warning light
Performance:¨Approx 1800hp (1342kW), best ET — 6.67, best speed 202.88mph (326.5kph), best 60ft 1.1 seconds. Currently quickest and fastest blown alky FED running in New Zealand
Words: Trevor Tynan Photos: Adam Croy